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The key to disruption in the construction industry?

November 28, 2017

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There has been much talk, and many rumours, about the construction industry being the next sector to undergo disruption – the collapse of established operating models. Google’s research and development unit Google X began the development of a modular construction system for high-rise buildings back in 2009. Since then, the company has been developing, under various titles and corporate structures, a solution for the organisation of construction engineering and project development data, a platform application for land use planning, and a construction cost and building life-cycle management application. However, no large-scale product launches have followed.

At this point, a construction professional may feel some relief: Google developers may be skilled software wizards, but they probably haven’t spent much time at construction sites. The development of complicated operations, such as construction, takes some real professional expertise. Still, no disruption has been launched from within the construction industry either. Software and information modelling have certainly reached new levels. An increasing number of contractors use Congrid, and modular construction methods have developed in great leaps. Most recently, GenieBelt from Denmark, a tool for gathering all documentation in one place, has attracted considerable attention. For the most part, however, work continues at construction sites just the same as always.

In construction, disruption will take the form of transparency

Google, GenieBelt, Congrid and RIB are probably all taking us in the right direction, but we still don’t have the final answer: how can you enter the construction industry, and which paths will disruption follow?

Our informed guess is that disruption will take place through transparency. The construction business sorely needs more transparency. Who did what, where and when, and how much did it cost? These questions have even been under public investigation concerning many Finnish (and international) construction projects. The lack of transparency is, however, a problem that goes much deeper than just the risk to an individual contractor’s reputation. Why? Because there’s no improvement without transparency.

Real-time monitoring allows improvement of construction site operations

Actual improvement is only possible with real-time information about who is doing what at the construction site. For example, if a certain work phase is repeatedly delayed, the resulting scheduling problems can be solved by reserving some additional time for the work, or by removing the bottleneck in some other way. Installers can use our Sitedrive application on their phones to mark work phases as started or completed. This means that the site supervisor doesn’t need to check the progress at all work locations. Instead, they can focus on being where they are actually needed. This saves time and improves the management results. The client is also able to monitor the progress of work in real time and compare it to the plans. Still, the most important thing about transparency is that it will allow us to create new applications that use systematic information to make the construction industry more effective – and disrupt it.

Easier availability of project documentation, gathering of land use planning information in one place, and efficient modular construction operations are all great ideas worthy of being promoted. However, none of these can alone bring disruption – a real-time domino effect – to the construction industry.

Transparency is a prerequisite for development

This domino effect could be brought about by transparency. It is a necessary prerequisite for all other development. The same simple insight applies in all other areas of life as well: the right decisions can only be achieved based on correct, up-to-date information. The problem can only be solved when it is first made visible. We must do to construction information what Google did to all information: make it accessible. The impact can be compared to how search engines have taken the place of encyclopaedias, which now gather dust on library shelves.

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